Today in 1954, the battle of Dien Bien Phu began. It would be the last set battle of the First Indochina War, a conflagration that would set the stage for another, more costly war in the decades to come.
Vietnam had been a French colony from the middle of the 19th century. Like many colonial powers, France ignored native calls for even limited self-government. During the Second World War, Japan occupied the country. This led to the creation of the Viet Minh, a communist movement led by Ho Chi Minh whose goal was to fight both the Japanese occupation and French claims to the country. On the same day the Second World War ended, Sept. 2nd, 1945, Viet Minh forces occupied Hanoi and declared independence from France. The French soon sent troops to the country, triggering the First Indochina War in 1946.
More than seven years later, French forces were far from victory. A series of in-country commanders were unable to stop the Viet Minh, whose only limitation was their supply lines. With this in mind, the French tried a new tactic. They set up a base at Dien Bien Phu located in the northwest corner of Vietnam. The area was mountainous, so the base would have to be re-supplied from the air. Higher mountains surrounded the place, but this was believed to give the Viet Minh no significant advantage. This belief would prove to be fatal.
French intelligence as to the makeup and distribution of Viet Minh forces was sorely lacking. It was believed the communists only commanded a light force, with little artillery or other heavy weapons. In fact, the Viet Minh owned so much heavy artillery that even as the base at Dien Bien Phu was being established, they were able to outnumber the French in big guns by a ratio of four-to-one. The leader of the Viet Minh forces, General Giap, quietly surrounded the French positions, stockpiled supplies, and waited.
On March 13th, 1954, the French had almost 16,000 troops at Dien Bien Phu and the surrounding valley, including their indigenous allies; the Vietnamese numbered more than 50,000. Sporadic shelling of the base had been occurring since January and French patrols had encountered resistance in every direction. While there was no doubt there would be an attempt to take Dien Bien Phu, the defenders did not know when the attack would come. At 5PM on the 13th, with a new moon allowing for a nighttime infantry attack, the Viet Minh unleashed a massive artillery barrage. The wait was over.
The base contained several separate hills that the French had fortified. These hilltops would change hands over the next two months, causing incredible casualties on both sides. The airfield was one of the first victims of the artillery barrage, meaning that French supplies would have to be air-dropped in via parachute. This was made more difficult by the Viet Minh’s anti-aircraft units, another weapon the French had not expected to contend with. Counter-fire from inside the base was not every effective, since the communists had time before the battle to dig in and set up fake guns made of wood and painted black. The situation became so lopsided that the French artillery commander, distraught at his inability to bring counter-fire on the well-camouflaged Viet Minh batteries, went into his dugout and killed himself with a hand grenade.
Except for a two-week lull at the end of March, the fighting continued unabated into May. On the ground, the scene was reminiscent of the First World War, including trench warfare. On May 7th, General Giap ordered one final push against the remaining French positions. By the end of the day, the Viet Minh controlled all areas of the base. Roughly seventy French soldiers escaped to Laos; the rest were taken prisoner.
The defeated survivors of the battle were treated horribly. The Red Cross was able to obtain the release of 838 of the most wounded men, but the rest were held for four months. Of the 10,863 held for that period, only 3,290 were repatriated. To this day, 3,013 of the prisoners are unaccounted for. The total losses for the French were nearly 2,300 dead and 5,200 wounded. The Viet Minh suffered even more: counting the dead and wounded, their casualty count was over 23,000 men.
The loss at Dien Bien Phu essentially ended French intervention in Indochina. The 1954 Geneva Accords ended the war and France agreed to leave the nation forever. The Accords partitioned the nation into northern and southern halves with the intention of reuniting them with a national election in 1956. But it would never be. The southern government gained support from the United States against the communist north, and the north gained the support of China and the Soviet Union. By 1959, the two halves of the nation were at war with one another, a conflict that would last until April, 1975, when North Vietnamese forces captured Saigon, and reunited the country.